By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The policy has achieved mixed results. On the housing front, the steady erosion of low-income rentals was stopped but never reversed -- there are just half the cheap units available now as in, say, 1965. And while about 80 small hotels have been taken over and now offer clean, safe, affordable lodgings, the majority of Skid Row housing is still provided by a handful of hulking old hotels that stand along the western border of the district: the Cecil, the Roslyn, the Alexandria, the Frontier and several more. Each offers hundreds of rooms, and each is considered by city officials and by poverty activists alike as slum housing that is beneath acceptable social standards.
The decision to concentrate social services has had more success, but has engendered problems of its own. With free meals, clothes and sometimes rooms routinely available, Skid Row has become a natural destination for homeless people on the move from almost any point west of the Mississippi. Law-enforcement agencies pitch in, releasing inmates from state prison and short-term lockup onto the street to mix with vagrants and the financially bereft. Even Sheriff Lee Baca, who has campaigned for new solutions to homelessness, admits to releasing 35 to 50 prisoners a day into the neighborhood east of downtown.
The CRA has moved to break the Skid Row stalemate with a scheme that calls for gutting most of the larger SRO hotels and installing new apartments, some of which would include rent subsidies for the poor. But homeless activists promptly filed suit to block the plan, contending that the renovations would remove thousands of bottom-dollar units from the market.
Don Spivak, deputy administrator for the CRA, said the plan includes $73 million in funds for low-income housing, but he concedes that the money will not be available for years. In the meantime, he said, the SRO hotels should be renovated because “they are not adequate or decent housing.”
Becky Dennison of the Community Action Network and other activists agree that conditions on Skid Row demand a response, but say that adequate housing -- for an estimated 4,000 people living in slum conditions, and another 3,000 or so living on the street -- must be located first. And that would take an unprecedented investment of public funds. Mitchell Netburn, executive director at the LAHSA, said New York City tackled its homeless problem only after deciding -- after a lawsuit forced its hand -- to offer “shelter on demand.” That city‘s homeless-services agency currently spends roughly $500 million a year -- 10 times as much as its a L.A. counterpart. “There’s a huge disparity in funding between the two cities,” Netburn said.
But the housing mantra has worn thin for the business community and its representatives. “The rhetoric is about housing,” Tom Gilmore said, “but I‘m not sure that’s the problem.” And civic leaders flatly reject the 20-year time frame that major new housing projects would entail. Said Jan Perry, whose district includes Skid Row, “I don‘t intend to spend four years in office and allow nothing to happen.”
In the short term, at least, Perry will exhort the City Council to turn the question over to the police. Both of her ordinances, on encampments and on public urination and defecation, will bar practices that the street cops who patrol Skid Row have come to tolerate, at least during stretches between sporadic crackdowns.
Both laws are likely to be tested, however, and William Nowell’s successful defense shows how tough that test can be. Past litigation brought by Callaghan and the ACLU has firmly established the constitutional limits of police harassment for crimes like litter and vagrancy. Whatever the state of city ordinances, the police must walk a thin line.
Some believed officers crossed that line with the parole sweeps conducted last month, which resulted in 192 arrests, more than half of ex-cons violating their parole. Charlie Beck, captain of the LAPD‘s Central Division, stressed in a community meeting that the sweeps were part of his strategy for weeding predators out of the Skid Row mix, and not designed to roust people legally on the street.
Planning for the sweeps, which involved more than 100 parole officers from around the state, began even before Chief Bratton took office. As for demands that police clear the squatters and transients off the sidewalks downtown, Beck said, “Until you have alternatives in place, you can’t just legislate these problems away.”
For cops on the beat, “It‘s kind of a juggling process,” said Sergeant Jim MacDonald, head of the LAPD’s Eastside Detail, the squad charged with breaking down encampments and otherwise clearing the sidewalks of Skid Row. During a morning drive through the district -- MacDonald‘s shift starts at 4 a.m. -- there’s no shortage of technical violations of the law. Tents are everywhere, crack pipes flare in plain view, and fights between destitute street hustlers erupt with regularity. Slim and ruddy-faced, with a slow, Oklahoma drawl, MacDonald moves deliberately, intervening only in the egregious case.
Making constant arrests for minor infractions, he said, would only take him off the street -- for the hours-long process of booking and then for court appearances -- and result in only brief interludes for the miscreants in county lockup. “The system is just overburdened and broken down,” MacDonald said. “I agree with the broken-windows theory of law enforcement” -- the strategy, championed by Chief Bratton, of combating crime by targeting obvious, minor violations -- “but the courts are so bogged down by the big problems that they‘ve got no room for the little ones.”
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